And what of China’s vaunted financial leverage? (As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it in a now-famous conversation with Australia’s prime minister published by WikiLeaks, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”) Strategists believe that China’s financial power is exaggerated as well: In truth, Beijing owns only about 8 percent of U.S. debt. And Japan, a reliable U.S. ally that’s likely to remain one, recently moved back past China as the largest holder of U.S. debt.
As World Bank President Robert Zoellick writes in the current issue of Foreign Policy, quoting Bob Carr, Australia's foreign minister, "The United States is one budget deal away from restoring its global preeminence."
As far as change to Myanmar goes, the country is still run by an ex-general, Thein Sein, who likely still answers to another general, Than Shwe, the officially retired senior junta leader. It is also clear that Suu Kyi has weakened her resolve somewhat from the early days when she demanded the regime give up power and restore her party's place after it won an overwhelming electoral victory in 1990. Now, Suu Kyi will be working with her captors rather than defying them, and America will be welcoming another set of repressive dictators into its circle of trust. A gradual lifting of U.S. sanctions will permit eager U.S. businesses to rush into the impoverished but mineral-rich country.
Yet despite the marginal pressure being put on the regime now, history shows that engagement works much better than isolation. The key to the destruction of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence, the East bloc, lay as much with the Helsinki Final Act signed by President Ford in August 1975 as it did with Ronald Reagan’s arms buildup. As part of an agreement, Moscow signed onto vague promises of “human rights and fundamental freedoms” that eventually inspired “Helsinki monitoring groups” in East-bloc countries, most famously Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. Thus, Helsinki helped to engender the dissident movements that blossomed in the 1980s and eventually destroyed the Soviet bloc.
So, despite the outcry from human-rights activists who oppose Obama’s visit, even filmmaker Bob Lieberman thinks the president’s policy is right, despite his snub from the U.S. Embassy. “I think it’s a good idea that he is going,” says Lieberman. “It forces them into the 21st century.” If Obama is right, the same thing will happen to China.